How machine learning can help media companies thrive in the 21st century

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      Many veteran journalists around the world have received a rude awakening in recent years, courtesy of Internet metrics.

      Thanks to Google Analytics, Chartbeat, and other measuring tools, they've learned which articles and subjects resonate with online readers and which pieces fall flat.

      As much as I might be interested in a particular topic, the numbers will quickly tell me if the public doesn't care.

      On the positive side, Internet metrics reveal areas where there is tremendous public interest but which are largely unexplored by the media.

      Quoting international-affairs expert Gwynne Dyer, I once wrote an article about how terrorism is overblown in the media. Much to my surprise, that article went viral.

      The same thing happened after I interviewed Delhi-based writer Arundhati Roy about the 2014 Indian election.

      More recently, an article quoting Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis on the COVID-19 pandemic hit a nerve.

      Many people are under the impression that media outlets go after clickbait like the Kardashians or the Royal Family to attract eyeballs to their websites.

      While there's some truth to that, there's also another reality. Serious articles offering alternative views can yield a tremendous amount of Internet traffic.

      Last month, I was astonished to learn that my articles on generated more than 1.1-million page views, according to Chartbeat. Not a single one dealt with Meaghan or Harry.

      This number was far higher the norm, so I publicly thanked Anton Tikhomirov, the brilliant senior vice president of technology and architecture of Media Central Corporation.


      At the end of February, Media Central closed a deal with the McLeod family to buy the Georgia Straight. The Ontario-based company also owns NOW Magazine in Toronto and the online publication about cannabis and psychedelics.

      This morning, thanks to a Media Central news release, I learned more about the role that Anton is playing in making the Georgia Straight and NOW more resilient in the Internet age.

      Using artificial intelligence, Anton and his team have expanded the digital advertising inventory across all of the company's properties "to monetize its growing audience of 6.5 million influential consumers through technology".

      Here at the Straight, ad impressions have risen 25 percent over the past two months.

      Ad impressions are up a stunning 405 percent in that same period at NOW. Keep in mind that all of this has occurred during a pandemic.

      As a result, Media Central's overall programmatic ad revenue jumped by 389 percent in April.

      “Our digital advertising revenues are projected to dramatically surpass our legacy ad model as we move forward with our tech-heavy strategy," Anton says in the news release. "We are leveraging the latest technology to optimize bottom line growth, while ensuring our readers have the best possible experience.

      "Programmatic ads are successful because they use machine learning to ensure consumer demand ad placements, driven by data, in real time."

      Yes folks, computers are purchasing advertising from other computers.

      When I started working at the Georgia Straight in the 1990s, nobody ever used terms like "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence".

      Only in recent years has it dawned on me that machine learning could be a salvation for media companies in a world increasingly dominated by Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Alibaba.

      We're still not at a point where the robots can do my job—and for that, I'm grateful. But technology has gotten very good at letting me know when I'm striking out or whacking the ball over the fence. It's also a revenue generator.

      Long gone are those days when media outlets simply operated on hunches to survive.